In some ways, we have been celebrating Christmas since the angels sang about the birth of the baby Jesus, and even before that pagan holidays celebrated the dark of winter and the hope of spring. But the Victorians started celebrating Christmas as we know it now: and since then every December has been an opportunity to have a Victorian Christmas party! The songs, food, decorations and customs of the Victorians remains to delight us with Christmas customs every year.
The era of Queen Victoria was full of amazing changes, as she was born into a largely agrarian society, and died in an industrial society. Many of the Christmas customs that came about during her time show the influence of that history.
The celebrating started in the 1840’s when Queen Victoria from Britain and her German born husband Prince Albert took a time that had been dark and somber up to that time and made it a time of merriment. The Christmas tree started the celebrations, as Prince Albert shared the German custom of bringing a tree inside the house and decorating it to England. It was not completely unknown to the Brits, and since Victoria had a German born mother it was not completely unknown but after a drawing of the Queen and her family enjoying a beautifully decorated evergreen in Windsor Castle was published in the Illustrated London News, decorating a family Christmas tree became a necessity for most British homes of any means. The tree would be decorated with real candles, ornate angels, and colorful fruits.
When businessman Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design the first Christmas card, the Victorian Christmas blossomed even more. The first Christmas card was a postcard that showed a wealthy family enjoying a lovely Christmas meal with his family, flanked by some scenes or urban poverty that reminded us to be generous with those in need. These cards sold for one shilling, which was pricey for most ordinary Londoners, but soon making Christmas cards was a lovely activity for families, and when printing improved and postage became cheaper, the Christmas card business took off.
Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, and soon the world was familiarized with the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from a miserly, cruel man to a generous, warm soul as he learns his path if e continues down his materialistic ways. We will forever remember Bob Cratchit and his family, especially little Tiny Tim. Dickens was at his best, with this Victorian Christmas tale full of family feasting and pleasure, and the call for social awareness and love of mankind that is in every Dickens novel. Indeed Dickens had meant for the story to be more of a straightforward plea to solve the problems of poverty, but he decided instead to make a make his arguments into characters – and we were left with enduring fiction that still opens our heart to Christmas giving. Dickens did not invent the Victorian Christmas, but A Christmas Carol popularized the customs and traditions of the holiday. Also the themes of family, serving mankind as the true business of every man, serving others as a way to happiness beautifully shows the spirit of the Victorian Christmas.
Giving presents was certainly not started by the Victorians, in fact British pagans and Father Christmas had lightened up winter’s darkness for eons by giving small gifts of food, candles and pottery during Saturnalia – even before the Three Wise Men famously brought their gifts to the baby Jesus. But in England prior to the Victorians gift giving was very simple if at all. But the world was changing. Soon, with industrialization it became possible to produce toys more inexpensively and the custom of giving children presents blossomed.
Winter songs were sung for many years by pagans during Winter’s solstice, but it was during Victorian times that Christmas caroling came into full force and many carols were written.
Of course, the centerpiece of every Victorian Christmas celebration is the holiday dinner: and what a fine one it would have been. Of course there was the meat: Queen Victoria preferred roast beef, although serving goose, duck and of course turkey developed during Victorian times. All enjoyed sweets, fruits that could be quite special at the time such as oranges, and the Since industrialization had a huge influence on the time, the Christmas dinner had special processed foods as well as homemade ones. Some of these, such as HP Sauce and Cadbury Cocoa are still available today. The flaming Christmas pudding was the centerpiece of the meal: and was eagerly anticipated every year.
With the Christmas candles, magnificent Christmas tree, and singing of the carols, it is easy to have a Victorian Christmas party!